The Cure For Bland Characters

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I love reading stories with strong characters. There's nothing better than a vivid hero or crusty villain who jumps off the page, grabs you by the scruff of the neck, and pulls you into their story.

What happens when we write about a character who does the opposite? Instead of jumping, they sink. Glug, glug, glug…

strong character writing

photo credit: lintmachine via photopin cc

How do you fix it? How do you transform your bland character into someone readers can relate to, someone they want to follow?

Character Q&A

For a few months, I had my own radio show. It wasn't anything fancy, but it taught me a lot about the interview process. It was fun getting to know a stranger over the course of an hour. I was always amazed at the level of transparency that guests offered.

Why can't we do the same thing with characters? It's our job as writers to birth characters, to really get inside their heads. Why don't we interview them, run through a question and answer session where they open up about who they are?

Where To Start?

The most important thing I learned about conducting a thought-provoking Q&A was to ask open-ended questions. Stay away from simple yes or no answers.

Here's an example of a question I've asked my most popular character, Cal Stokes: Cal, how do you feel about politicians?

The former Marine could go on and on describing his countless confrontations with corrupt politicians. It's in those comments that I dig out pieces of Cal's psyche, allowing me to better understand who he is and how he would react to situations within my novels.

I can hear him saying things like, “Let me tell you about the time when…” or “The bedrock of our country is being eroded by…”

Not only will I find his personality, I'll also find snippets to use for dialogue. Pretty cool.

Example Questions

Not sure where do start? Here are some open-ended questions you might want to ask your character.

How did that situation make you feel?

What did you do to remedy the situation?

How do you think your decision will affect others?

Where do you go from here?

Notice how I word the question so that it's virtually impossible (unless they're completely uncooperative) to give one-word answers. Often the simplest question evokes a momentous response.

What's the first question you would ask your favorite character?

PRACTICE

Conduct an interview with a one of your characters for fifteen minutes. Don't have one of your own? Choose a favorite from a novel you love. Be creative. Really get to know them. Dig deep.

Post your practice in the comments section below and please provide feedback for your peers 🙂

Carlos is author of the Corps Justice novels. Get the box set of Books 1-3 for FREE HERE.

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26 Comments

  1. Alicia Rades

    I love your solution to bland characters, and I love interviewing my characters. Asking things like “how did that make you feel,” really helps you understand their reactions BEFORE you start writing them.

    Reply
  2. Marilyn Ostermiller

    I’ve been a journalist for literally decades, but never thought of using interview techniques for character development for fiction. It makes sense. You are using the right technique by asking questions that require more than a yes or no answer.
    I will use a character created for a previous practice to experiment.
    Tommy sped by the Jaguar dealership on his way home nearly every evening between six and eight, depending on whether he worked late or stopped for a bite. But tonight, almost as if it were a foregone conclusion that he would soon be driving his own XF Supercharged, Tommy pulled into visitor parking. The Jags gleamed under the lights in the well-appointed showroom. The Italian Racing Red convertible began beaming its siren song into his brain — 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds.
    Responding as if suddenly smitten, he was soon standing over it, nodding his head ever so slightly, a slight smile playing across his face.
    As Tommy lowered himself into the driver’s seat and inhaled the scent of luxury vehicle, he stroked the soft grain leather, clutched the cold chrome stick shift and pictured himself speeding north on the Palisades Parkway along the Hudson River, top down and Springsteen blasting out, “Born to Run.”
    Question: Tommy, how do you think a car like this will change your life?
    Answer: Yeah, well isn’t it obvious. I mean, like I will get the hottest babes around. They will be crawling all over me just to go cruising in this car.

    Reply
    • Carlos Cooper

      Marilyn, Thanks for practicing! Would love to know the inspiration on this one 🙂

      Reply
      • Marilyn Ostermiller

        Carlos, Thanks for giving us this assignment. As to where the inspiration came from, I honestly have no idea. I don’t remember what the practice topic was and I didn’t post it at the time. My WIP is a children’s book that takes place in the Midwest in 1928 so Tommy did not grow out of that. But, I might see where he takes me because I have not developed a character like him. I think it will be fun.

        Reply
    • Sefton

      Nice! It’s funny, I find those character questionnaire sheets don’t help me, but picturing a magazine-style interview really got me into my character’s head. Do you interview people in your work then?

      Reply
      • Marilyn Ostermiller

        Sefton, Thanks for the encouragement. Yes, as a reporter for several daily newspapers and then for an international business journal I made my living interviewing people. It was a fabulous experience. And, that experience is the reason this approach to developing characters really speaks to me. I’m going to use it.

        Reply
    • John Fisher

      I like the in situ interview: the story gives your question its relevance!

      Reply
      • Marilyn Ostermiller

        Thanks, John

        Reply
  3. Brina Brady

    Twenty year old male escort Brennen created a private porn Twitter account and his Russian lover’s brother Mischa who is Brennen’s personal
    guard and chauffeur discovered the account and brought it to his attention and
    he was not too pleased. The questions are posed to Brennen. These characters are from my WIP Rent Me by Brina Brady.

    How did that situation make you feel?

    I was angry with myself because I should have known better to think that I could get away with having a private Twitter account. What makes it worse is that I used
    my escort name Kaiden. I should have know Mischa would find out about it. I wouldn’t put it past him if he stuck something in my computer to trace every finger stroke I made. But for him to find my Twitter account with all those pictures I posted of myself naked and those videos. What was I thinking?

    But what was worse is he gave me a choice, not a choice really. He told me I had choice to be punished by Dmitri, the man I love or him.
    Mischa was a Russian hit man for Dmitri’s drug organization. Neither of
    them would be easy on me.

    What did you do to remedy the situation?

    The only way out of this stupid mess I created for myself was to choose Mischa to punish me because Dmitri would be angry but I could not stand to see the hurt in his
    eyes. I don’t want to hurt him. He did so much for me. I am so stupid.

    How do you think your decision will affect others?

    I think my decision choosing Mischa prevented Dmitri from finding out about it and so he was spared the hurt.

    However, I did not get off too good. He pulled a gun to my head, disciplined me then
    stuffed me inside the trunk tied up for thirty minutes while he drove us back
    home from the cabin. Mischa stopped the SUV and removed me from the trunk and
    thought Mischa was going to shoot me but he asked me if I learned my lesson and
    I said yes. I was able to sit in the car and he told me that the gun did not
    have bullets.

    Where do you go from here?

    I won’t be posting anymore naked pictures and I will think about others and how my actions
    affect them.

    Reply
    • Carlos Cooper

      Brina, Thanks for sharing. The ending cracked me up. If all that had happened to me, I’m not sure I could be so calm 🙂 Happy writing!

      Reply
      • Brina Brady

        Thank you. He was not too calm when he got home though.

        Reply
    • Sefton

      Liked the straightforward talking style of the male escort! I guess you need to be able to take the punishment in his job. The trite moral at the end made me smile too.

      Reply
  4. Sefton

    -Quinton. Why do you steal?

    We are in the tea room at the Ritz and Quinton Axe looks every inch the aristocrat in a pale blue suit with white shirt and grey silk tie. His shoes are an unconventional faun leather, and his trademark albino hair shines under the supposedly-outlawed incandescent bulbs of the hotel’s chandeliers.

    -Boredom. To redress the balance. To keep fit. Because I can. To intrude into others’ lives. To amuse my admirers.

    -What about the risks?

    -No one believes I do it. If they do, either they will never report me – or, if they did – and some used to try – there is no proof.

    -What happens to what you steal?

    -That’s my business. (He smiles and touches the pin in his lapel.)

    -How did you learn to break into houses and banks?

    -Practice.

    -What was the first thing you stole?

    -A lock of hair from a girl who was teasing me. She had beautiful chestnut brown hair, and she kept touching my hair and saying it was like her grandad’s. She accused me of being a shrunken sixty-year-old and laughed. Everyone laughed. I started a game of blind man’s bluff and made her go first as the prettiest girl. I tied the scarf over her eyes and while I did so I took a pair of scissors out of my waistcoat pocket and snipped off a lock of her hair. I tucked most of it up inside the blindfold, and hid a bit of it inside my shirt. It itched.

    (He is squeezing the lapel pin between his left index finger and thumb.) -When the game was over, she untied the scarf and her hair fell off.

    -I thought you said a lock of hair.

    -I let her keep the rest. She didn’t seem to want to sweep it up, though.

    Quinton drinks some tea out of the gilt floral cup on our table. I notice the pale hair on the backs of his hands. -How old were you?

    -I was thirteen. She was fifteen.

    -I thought you were small children!

    (Bitterly.) -We were privileged. We led stunted lives of false childhood, from which we were led directly to the marriage bed.

    His blinks his pale eyes at me, a challenge his spiky persona makes impossible to meet, and I pick up my list of scripted questions and begin again.

    Reply
    • Brina Brady

      Wow! Is this a WIP novel or what? Fantastic memorable character and he is not bland at all. I hear the character’s voice and attitude. The guy is lying as he is answering the questions and he doesn’t care how he paints the truth. Very interesting character. He has the nerve not to answer one of the questions, too. I like his answer to why he steals.

      Reply
    • Marilyn Ostermiller

      Sefton, I find Quinton fascinating in a reprehensible way. I think he has a future.

      Reply
    • Carlos Cooper

      This is great. Please tell me this is an on-going character. I want to see the dirty trouble Quinton gets into. Quippy. I love it. Thanks for posting!

      Reply
      • Sefton

        Thanks Carlos. I am trying Quinton out, think he may be a keeper, though I don’t have anywhere to put him yet. And thanks for the exercise, it really worked, just when I needed it. -Sef

        Reply
  5. Savanna J.

    I read an article a few months ago where the author, Terry McMillan, filled out a job application for her characters. She filled out every minute detail – education, job experience, previous addresses, criminal backgroud – of her characters until they became living breathing people. That’s the problem with some characters. If you don’t have a good profile, the characters can blend into each other and you’re left writing the same person in different stories. Thank you for the article.

    Reply
    • Monica

      Did you read the article here on The Write Practice?? :)https://thewritepractice.com/nothing-like-you/

      Reply
      • Savanna J.

        Yes!!! That is the very same article. Thank you for sharing it. It certaintly has helped me with my character development.

        Reply
    • John Fisher

      I read that article too, and all of what you say is true. Same person/different story is not necessarily bad imo as long as you’re doing it consciously, as for example the many novel series. I’ve run into the fallacy of writing the same character into a different story kind-of-forgetfully, and that is something to watch out for.

      Reply
  6. John Fisher

    John: I have with me today Mr. Reed Marcher, teacher, coach and principal in the course of a fifty-year career in the Chiprock, Texas Consolidated School District. Thank you for being here today.

    Marcher: Thanks, glad to be here.

    John: Sir, fifty years is time enough to see many changes is public education, but also to have witnessed things that work well. Can you give me an overview of your philosophy of what quality public education should equip students with?

    Marcher: Well, the most vital thing in my experience is to inculcate a sense of the proper values to students so that they can join society as sober and responsible and con– well, as citizens with a proper sense of the traditions which keep this country strong. The kids who have been brought up in good homes, where these traditional values have been taught since their infancy, can act as strong peer influence on those who need more inculc– education in a proper sense of values. By way of illustration: when I was still an intern, this was in the 1950s, there was a group of boys who, in imitation of people like Elvis Presley, who was all the popular rage just then, began greasing back their hair in those duck-tail hair arrangements, and leaving their shirt-fronts unbuttoned almost down to their navels. Well, there was another group of *good*, *clean-cut* boys who ran together, and they caught these would-be hoodlums away from school one afternoon, and beat every one of those elvis-types senseless. [Leans his husky, still-muscular bulk forward aggressively] The good boys made an important point that needed to me made: There are some things that we will not put up with in a Christian nation and a good town. [Sits back, face red, small smile on his lips.]

    Reply
    • Carlos Cooper

      Nice. I was wondering where the interview was going, and then SMACK, you get it in the end. Didn’t see that coming 🙂 Thanks for sharing, John!

      Reply
      • John Fisher

        Absolutely, and thanks for the opportunity, Carlos!

        Reply

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